2020 Time Capsule #3: ‘I Don’t Take Responsibility at All’

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

This afternoon, on the heels of a widely panned formal Oval Office address, Donald Trump assembled a group of scientific and corporate leaders to talk about dealing with the coronavirus. You can watch the whole thing on the White House YouTube channel.

I suspect that we’ll see one line from this conference played frequently in the months ahead. You can watch it starting at around 1:22:00, when reporter Kristen Welker of NBC asks Trump whether he takes responsibility for the lag in making test kits available.

Trump’s reply:

No.

I don’t take responsibility at all.

Narrowly parsed, and in full context, Trump was referring only to the test kits — and was continuing his (fantasized) complaint that rules left over from 2016, under the Obama administration, are the real reason the U.S. has been so slow to respond to this pandemic.

But filmable moments in politics are not always taken in full context, and at their most narrowly parsed logical reading:

All of these—in full context, and most-sympathetically read—had a meaning you could understand and perhaps defend. None of that context or meaning survived, as those went from being phrases to weaponized symbols.

Will that happen to “I don’t take responsibility at all”? We will soon see.


Other stage business points:

  • A series of CEOs came to the microphone to describe what their companies were doing to speed testing or help out in other ways. Trump caught the first three or four of them unawares, by shaking their hands as they moved away from the lectern. All seemed startled, as you can see in the video.

    Then the other CEOs began to catch on, and a following group of them scuttled away from the microphone before Trump could grab them for a handshake, or held their own hands clenched together, in a protective prayer-style grasp.

    Finally, (at 1:06 in the video) you can see Bruce Greenstein, of the LHC group, surprise Trump with an elbow-bump rather than a hand shake. Trump himself seemed completely oblivious to the idea of social distancing. It was also notable that one speaker after another touched and moved around the same microphone, and put his her hands on the sides of the same lectern.
  • I mentioned earlier today the uneasy and evolving position of Anthony Fauci, who has been the “voice of science” through this episode as he has during previous medical emergencies. The uneasiness lies in the tension between his decades as a respected scientist, and his current role as a prominent member of Team Trump. Can he retain his long reputation as a straight shooter? While maintaining any influence with Trump?

    Make what you will of his body language through the events today. (He is at far left in the picture below.)
  • White House

  • Also today, I mentioned the inevitable-for-Trump, though inconceivable-in-other-administrations, ritual of Trump subordinates limitlessly praising the goodness and wisdom of their leader. It was striking to see all the CEOs skipping right past that formality.

    But if you felt a phantom-limb twinge in the absence of these comments, all you had to do was wait for Mike Pence. You can hear him starting at around 1:07, with comments that began “This day should be an inspiration to every American” and built in earnestness from there.

There was much more from the question-and-answer session, but I don’t want to spoil the experience of discovery for anyone who has not seen it yet.

Two hundred and thirty-five days until the election.